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How to cook grains

Woman eating oatmeal porridge

Learning how to cook grains can be daunting especially as you can purchase many different types or variations of barley, corn, oats, soybeans and wheat. Scroll below to learn the common ways to cook and add Ontario grains to your meals!

You may have noticed that in barley recipes, they will distinguish between which barley to use: hull, pearl or pot. What’s the difference between each?

Hull barley

Hull barley has the outermost hull removed but still retains the bran and endosperm layer. Considered to be the most nutritious form of barley and is a whole grain. As most of the grain is still intact, it is a nuttier and chewier version.

To cook: Combine water and barley in a saucepan. Add a generous pinch of salt if desired. Bring the water and barley to a boil over high heat. When the barley has reached a boil, lower the heat to a low simmer, cover, and continue to cook until the barley is done. For hulled barley, start checking at 40 minutes. When done, remove from heat and fluff the barley with a fork to separate the grains.

One cup of hulled barley will yield around three cups of cooked barley. Hulled barley is delicious as a pilaf or as an alternative to wheat berries in whole grain salads

Pearl barley

Pearl barley has been processed through a pearling machine, that removes the inedible outside hull and polishes the seeds. Pearl barley is a whiter grain due to the extra polishing the seed received, and the bran layer has been removed so it is not considered to be whole grain and is less nutritious than hulled barley.  

To cook: Combine water and barley in a saucepan. Add a generous pinch of salt if desired. Bring the water and barley to a boil over high heat. When the barley has reached a boil, lower the heat to a low simmer, cover, and continue to cook until the barley is done. For pearl barley, start checking at 25 minutes. When done, remove from heat, and fluff the barley with a fork to separate the grains.

Pearl barley is softer and releases starch into its cooking liquid, making it a good thickener for soups. If you don’t want pearl barley to thicken your dish, cook it separately and rinse it before adding. For this same reason, it can also be made risotto-style, resulting in a creamy, chewy dish.

Pot Barley

Pot barley has also been through the pearling process, but it is pearled for a shorter amount of time than pearl barley. The outermost hull is removed, but the bran and endosperm remain intact.

To cook: Combine water and barley in a saucepan. Add a generous pinch of salt if desired. Bring the water and barley to a boil over high heat. When the barley has reached a boil, lower the heat to a low simmer, cover, and continue to cook until the barley is done. For pot barley, start checking at 25 minutes. When done, remove from heat and fluff the barley with a fork to separate the grains.

The isn’t a lot of difference between pot barley and pearl barley so you can use pearl or pot barley in most dishes interchangeably.

Grain corn is not to be confused with sweet corn or popcorn. Grain corn is used to make a variety of foods or ingredients in the grocery store (over 2,500 grocery store items contain corn!) but it is not eaten off the cob or popped for a tasty snack. To use grain corn in your cooking, you can use corn oil, corn starch, cornflour and cornmeal. 


Cornmeal is dried and ground yellow or white grain corn with textures ranging from fine to coarse. Many recipes will distinguish between how coarse or fine the cornmeal should be. Most types of cornmeal have had the germ and bran removed during processing, but is still high in iron, fibre and phosphorous!  However, stone-ground cornmeal is a whole grain as the bran and endosperm have been left in during milling. Need help figuring out if it’s in fact a whole grain? Look under the ingredients list for a whole grain label!

But isn’t cornmeal polenta? No, polenta is a traditional Italian dish, not an ingredient. Polenta is made from grain corn, and some products at the grocery store are labelled as polenta. When making polenta, look for medium to coarsely ground cornmeal.

Ok, but what are grits then? Grits are traditional Southern dish made from yellow or white cornmeal that is coarsely ground.

Corn flour

Corn flour is simply finely ground cornmeal, and high in magnesium and potassium; two minerals that promote good blood circulation. Corn flour is great for thickening soups or stews, as a breading for fish and can be incorporated into pancake, waffle, bread and other baking recipes!

How to cook

There aren’t any special instructions when cooking cornmeal or cornflour, just follow the recipe directions.

If you want to interchange between the two keep in mind the differences. Corn flour is finely ground and therefore less dense than cornmeal.  As such, it would need less time to cook or bake. There isn’t a need to change the amount either- ¼ cornmeal is the same as ¼ corn flour. Also, keep in mind, if you are substituting corn flour for cornmeal, the result will be lighter and fluffier and the batter will also be thinner.  Lastly, there’s no need to change the amount of cornflour in the recipe.

All oats start off as a whole grain called oat groats. Groats are oat seeds that have had the shell or outside hull removed. From there they are processed into 4 types of commonly used oats we use for basked goods and oatmeal! They are very nutritious and nutritionally there is very little difference between the four.

Steel-cut oats

Steel-cut oats are oat groats that are cut into 2 or 3 pieces with a sharp blade. They cook more quickly than whole oats and retain a nice, chewy texture. To cook: Steel oats take the longest to cook about 20-30 minutes, but can also be made overnight in a slow cooker. If you are making steel cut oats on the stove, boil water (or milk!), add your oats and let simmer on medium heat for between 20 – 30 mins. In a slow cooker combine, oats, water and cook on low for 7-8 hours or on high for 4 hours.

Rolled oats (old-fashioned)

Rolled or old-fashioned oats are the oat groats that are steamed and then rolled flat into flakes. This means the oils are removed, and the oats stay fresh longer thus extending their shelf life. The larger surface area means they will cook more quickly than steel-cut oats. To cook: They absorb more water and cook faster than steel-cut oats. Add oats to boiling water or milk, stir and let simmer on medium heat for roughly 15 mixtures or until oats have reached the desired texture.

Quick oats

Quick oats are cut into more pieces, rolled thinner, and steamed longer. They will not have as much texture as the rolled oats or steel-cut but will cook much more quickly than steel-cut or rolled. To cook: Add hot water to a bowl of quick oats and let sit for 5 minutes. Quick oats can also be made in the microwave very quickly- add oats to a bowl of hot water and add to microwave for 30 seconds.

Instant oats

Instant oats are usually very similar to (if not the same as) quick oats but might be pressed even thinner and cut even smaller. They have a very soft texture when cooked but generally, need very little cooking time. To cook: Instant oats are probably the fastest way to make oats, and most times can be made in the microwave for those busy mornings! On the stove, add oats to a pot of boiling water, stir, remove from heat and let stand for 2-3 minutes. Or, you can add oats to a bowl of water and put in the microwave for 1 minute or until desires texture is reached.

Soybeans and soybean end products like soymilk, soy oil and soy butter are so versatile and can be used in a lot of dishes. These can be used interchangeably within many recipes and dishes as well!

  • Create a cream-based dish that calls for milk? Try using soymilk!
  • Substitute soy oil instead of cooking oil or vegetable oil!
  • Allergic to nuts or peanuts? Try a nut-free spread like soy butter for a high protein and tasty spread for hummusbaking, toast, crackers or fun kid snacks!

Other soybean end products like soybean paste (miso), tofu or whole-grain soybeans can easily be cooked and added to recipes.


Soybean paste or miso is a savoury, Japanese fermented soybean paste that is the staple for many Japanese dishes including miso soup, sauces and salad dressings! To cook: Miso is a very easy dish to prepare. Simply follow the directions on the packaging! Miso paste can be dissolved in broth or water for a tasty sop dish, or stirred into other liquid ingredients to make salad dressings, marinades or glazes. Miso can also be added to a creamy pasta dish – simply add miso to a saucepan and whisk until it has turned into a liquid.


Tofu is made from condensed soy milk that is cooked into blocks. It is a high protein dish that can be added onto noodles, made into a burger, added to a smoothie or fried for a tasty dish! To cook: Before cooking with tofu, find out what type of tofu the recipe calls for silken, medium, firm and extra firm. The difference between these is simply the texture or how much water was pressed out of the tofu blocks when they were created. The more water that was pressed out, the firmer the texture will be, and the different textures will impact how the tofu will work in the recipe.

  • Silken tofu is great for creamy and blended foods (smoothies, desserts, hummus, salad dressings)
  • Medium tofu is pretty delicate and works well in soups.
  • Firm tofu absorbs flavours well and is great in a stir fry or can be pan-fried or crumbled into dishes.
  • Extra-firm tofu is the ideal choice for blocks or cubed tofu and can easily be cooked and added to pasta, noodles or stir-fries.

Tofu can be cooked on the stovetop, in the oven and on the grill. Simply squeeze out most of the water from the tofu, cut or crumble into chunks, toss in oil, then cook to the desired crispiness. Tofu is cooked when the outside of crispy and browned, and the inside if chewy and creamy. Want tofu to be extra crispy? Toss in cornstarch before cooking!

Whole roasted soybeans

Whole roasted soybeans or soy nuts are a very simple and tasty dish- whole-grain mature soybeans are roasted for a flavourful and high protein dish. These can be a perfect snack, side dish or added to salads for a protein kick! To cook: Roasted whole-grain soybeans or soy nuts are a high protein, tasty snack! Simply soak soybeans in water overnight or until the beans have expanded to triple size. Pat dry, and lightly coat with cooking oil, and layer on a baking sheet. Add to oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees celsius, or until soybeans are golden brown and crunchy.

While it is very easy to incorporate wheat into your meals by choosing whole-grain options, it is also very easy to cook and bake using wheat flour or kernels!


Many families would consider flour to be a pantry staple as it can be used in so many dishes. Flour is simply ground up wheat kernels into a fine powder that can be used in cooking, baking and many other uses! To cook: Cooking or baking with flour is very easy- most recipes will explain how to use flours either as a thickener, a base ingredient, or a coating for the meal.

Wheat berries

Wheat berries are actually the whole wheat kernel that hasn’t been shelled or processed in any way. They look like rice, and can be ground up into flour for homemade baking, and can be used in many grain-based dishes as an alternative to rice or barley while still maintaining the beneficial nutrients and nutty flavour we love so much from our whole grains. To cook:

To make homemade wheat berries or whole grain wheat kernels, fill a pot with enough water to completely cover wheat berries and bring to a boil on the stovetop. Reduce heat, cover and let simmer for up to one hour or until the grain is tender. Once cooked, add to your recipes or meals!

Need to speed up your cooking time? Pre-soak them in water overnight.

Wheat berries can be made ahead and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two days or kept in the freezer for up to one month. If you are going to store the wheat berries in the freezer, make sure they are completely cooled and moisture free before freezing.  

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